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June 2019
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2013-12 Nelson Mandela

James column for the SligoWeekender

No-one is born hating another person, because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. (Nelson Mandela)

When the death of South Africas greatest son Nelson Mandela was finally announced on December 5th by the current South African president, the controversial Jacob Zuma, the world stopped in its tracks, and we all bowed our heads in recognition of  Mandelas immeasurable contribution to peace and reconciliation in his own land and across the world.

Affectionately known as Madiba (his tribal nickname, as well as describing a floral flamboyantly loud shirt), Mandela was and remains the Father of a new-improved South Africa, the founder of South African democracy, an anti-apartheid icon, a fighter for equal opportunities, and arguably the worlds most significant statesmen of the 20th Century.

Originally born Rolihlahla Mandela in the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe, the name Nelson was given to him by a teacher. Mandela trained as a lawyer, and in 1961 he became the leader of the armed wing of the ANC (African National Congress). His life was at times a paradox. On the one hand he emulated Gandhis non-violent ideology, and on the other he was a violent leader of the ANC, landing up in 1964 with a life sentence for plotting to overthrow the government. Yet his goals were always peaceful goals  he sought the basic requirements of democracy, peace, reconciliation and equal rights between all South Africans, black and white. Make peace with the enemy, so the enemy becomes your partner.

Mandelas 1993 Nobel Prize was in recognition of the fact that he strove to unite South Africans. In a similar way to Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela was one of the first colossal global figures to use (in a positive way) celebrities, musicians, and Sports men and women to help pursue his dreams. In the same way rugby helped unite the four proud provinces of Ireland, the simple but powerful image of Mandela donning a Springbok Green Jersey did more for his successful struggle against apartheid, racial discrimination and segregation than endless hours and years of negotiation.  

During his 27 years of incarceration, including several years of labouring in a lime quarry at Robben Island, his great friend Oliver Tambo stood by him, fighting for Mandelas release. Behind Oliver was Mandelas second wife  the ever-controversial Winnie, a host of celebrities, the entire world, all pressurising the corrupt South African regime to release him from captivity.

Mandela was without doubt a self-confessed flawed hero. On the one hand he was viewed a Messiah by many, but as an armed leader of the ANC Mandela knew he was far from perfect. After he served a term as South Africas first ever black president in 1994, Nelson Mandela went on to help curb the spread of HIV/AIDS, having lost his own son Makgotho to the disease.

Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.

In his final years,  as he sat alongside his 3rd wife Graca, and his kids, grand-kids and great-grand-kids, Madiba has to have looked back on his achievements and realised the incalculable impact one man had on his country and the world. Mandela said resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies. As an orator Mandela had charisma, eloquence and intelligence, and is right up there with Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In Obamas words, he belongs to the ages (history).

The best thing the world could do in his memory would be to reignite our struggle to achieve a lasting real peace, and to establish a fair global system of human rights, so the world could live in harmony as Mandela had longed for.
Labi Siffres anti-apartheid song (recorded by the Celtic Tenors and Cheryls Childrens Home) is of course 100% relevant to Mandelas philosophy  The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become. The further you take my rights away, the faster I will run, because theres something inside so strong& Mandela proved that if you have conviction (no pun intended), drive and belief, you can achieve any goals and liberate the oppressed from the oppressor.

He walked the long road to freedom, he fought the good fight, and won. Now rest in peace Mr Mandela. You have earned your sleep.